Drama workshops: An effective way of getting children interested in literature

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The Independent Online

AY TAKI TAKI TAKI TAH! AY TAKI TAKI TAKI TAH! OO A LA LA LOO! OO A LA LOO!" Sixty feet beat a march on the floor, and you could almost believe the wood in the beams was marching too, as 30 children from Hendon School act out interpretations of power in Macbeth. In the room below, the ceiling rumbles as their contemporaries call out thoughts from Macbeth's dagger speech, broken from rhyme and reason, to learn about his vulnerability.

"It gives you a different perspective," says Joseph Pedder, 13. "You get to see how the characters feel." Joseph has just come from the group playing out Macbeth's vulnerability, where they also translated Shakespeare's language into modern idiom. "You had to think quickly about what you had to say, like Macbeth," he says. "It means we'll relate it back to the modern day."

Just what Jack Murray, workshop leader at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, was hoping for. "Kids can turn off quite quickly if they're talked at," he says. "It's quite easy to say Macbeth's about power, but if you do it in a physical way they relate to it. The workshops bring it alive." Poses of power and submission bring up some interesting interpretations, alongside the strong man stances. One girl rolls back on her heel, finger pointed, tut-tutting at her companion, who kneels in the pose of the dutiful Asian wife.

Murray's workshop is just one of the days out organised at the Globe theatre on the South Bank as part of its Lively Action programme for children aged seven and up.

Beyond London, that other great British Shakespearean institution, the Royal Shakespeare Company, brings the Bard alive in his birthplace at Stratford. The RSC offers a range of courses, including weekly workshops, special education days for each production, and conferences for sixth-formers and for teachers. "We want young people to form a lifetime relationship with Shakespeare," explains Mary Johnson at RSC Learning. "That means getting up and doing it."

As well as midweek workshops there are the Exploring Shakespeare days, aimed at revealing the rehearsal process. There are a handful each year, one for most productions. Through the day musicians, actors, lighting bods and stage crew look at previous productions and explain the decisions that go into putting Shakespeare on the stage. Actors talk about their interpretation, while the musicians go through different versions of songs used in different productions. Sixth-form conferences also focus on particular plays, again looking at the performance history and design, with actors talking about their interpretation, and for most a critic talking about theirs. Two to three conferences run each year in Stratford, Birmingham and London.

"The workshops deepen and add to their knowledge and understanding of the text," says Valerie Sewell, who teaches English at St Mary's RC High School in Herefordshire, who has taken groups to RSC workshops on Twelfth Night and will be returning in July to do Romeo and Juliet with her Year-10s. "With Shakespeare it could come crashing down round your ankles, but the kids have said they didn't realise how fun Shakespeare could be. It makes it all more relevant and brings the language alive, helps them understand the language, the beauty and poetry of it." And she adds that visiting Stratford has been an eye-opener for her kids. "The kids wouldn't go to Stratford otherwise, they get very excited about it," she says. "And they're getting the best Shakespeare on offer."

Probably the best, and certainly the cheapest, way to get the most out of Britain's top theatres is with a little help from a corporate sponsor. Alongside its normal workshop programmes the National Theatre organises an education project which is funded by Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank's Interact project provides the 22 schools involved with free tickets to performances at the National and special days to give some context to the plays. The most recent was organised to tie in with the National's production of Coram Boy. Before going to see a performance of the play the children spent the day at the Foundling Museum. In the museum's replica courtroom they acted out the ways babies were chosen for the orphanage in the nineteenth century, by lottery and petition, with some children playing supplicants and others patrons.

"The drama work in the museum put the play in its historical context," explains Paula Hamilton, who manages the project. "So the kids went into the show with more background. A lot are first time theatre-goers so it's important to support their visit."

"It was great," says Cluer, who teaches drama at the all-girl Norbury Manor High School, which has been part of the Interact scheme for the last three years. "The girls understood it so much better." Through the scheme Cluer has taken her students to workshops and performances of five plays at the National including Coram Boy. She says that being involved in the scheme has made girls at Norbury more enthusiastic about drama. "It's more exciting for them," she says. "It gives significance and prestige to the subject. It legitimises it and makes them more aware that what they're doing is serious and leads somewhere."

If you have a little more time and money at your disposal you can cast your net further afield with education companies organising drama trips abroad. EF Tours organises tailor-made trips anywhere in the world, from Iceland to Peru. "International experiences form a key part of any child's education," says Rupert Leyland, head of EF Tours. "Many of our students have cited their first international experience with EF as being the catalyst that caused them to proceed to higher education courses." With trips lasting from five to 30 days you'll need a very indulgent head teacher to be able to do them during term time, and with a minimum cost of £310 for a trip to Paris some pretty indulgent parents too, but some teachers believe that this is money well spent.

"The children get a phenomenal amount out of it and from a teaching point of view it's fantastic," says Claire Smith, who teaches drama at Bromsgrove School. Smith has taken three trips with EF Tours and is off to Boston later this month. Through EF Tours her children have done street theatre at the Venice Biennale and chatted with Broadway actors. "The children come away with new ideas they can use in their work," she says. But just as important for Smith is the opportunity for the class to come together during their time abroad. "The rapport you develop is useful in the classroom," she says. "The children see you as a real person, not just a teacher coming out of a cupboard and going back in again after the lesson."

Taking the text, teacher, and kids out of the classroom is what all workshops are all about. If the rustle of turning pages and muttered readings are beginning to grate there are plenty of opportunities out there to get physical and get enthused.